Saturday, December 27, 2008
Nothing makes me more aware of how influenced we are as Christians by popular culture than the Advent-Christmas season. No one goes to church on Christmas Day. I did once. A couple of years ago Christmas Day landed on a Sunday. The church wanted to continue with services... five people showed up. There were many people who didn't come to Christmas Eve services, which are usually quite popular.
So how do we practice religious devotion during Advent/Christmas? It isn't by church attendance for many. It is shopping and cooking and office parties. Many will call this their 'Holiday Celebration' completely unaware of the fact that Holiday used to mean Holy Day, a day devoted to religious observance. I feel slightly cranky and judgmental observing this and thinking some of the things that I'm thinking. Such as pondering how many people go through the season thinking that they really understand the 'reason for the season' while at the same time spending thousands of dollars on presents and never attending any sort of service or observing even private religious practices to celebrate this special season. Can we really call ourselves Christians if we go through Advent doing more to celebrate Capitalism than Christmas. So while the church is meant to be the presence of Christ to the world, in the world but not of it, St. Paul once wrote, I fear we are no more of the world than at at this season.
The thing I struggle with is, how to impress upon folks this point without sounding bitter or angry or (horror of horrors!) preachy.
I've given some thought lately to how it is that I will teach my children the meaning of Christmas. We read the Christmas story during the Advent season and we decorate the Christmas tree with hand made decorations that symbolize the Christian Christmas story... Angels, stars, crowns. We limit our own spending on them and engage them in shopping for the families that we adopt through our church. But now I must think about how to celebrate Christmas with them for the next two weeks, so that they learn that the season is not over, but has just begun. And then, do I mention any of this in church? or do I remain silent and let people enjoy a joyful season?
Saturday, December 20, 2008
Darin,I'm assuming that you are agreeing with the Catholic Church that the main purpose of sex and of marriage is to have children.
No, I am not saying I agree with the Catholic Church that the main purpose of sex is to have children. I think that sex is meant to deepen and strengthen the emotional ties in marriage and be a catalyst for the emotional grouth of the two partners. Sex has a vital and important role in marriage regardless of procreation. So while I would not agree that the main 'purpose' of sex is children, I do think that the Catholic Church offers an important and necessary alternative to the purely recreational view of sex that is predominant in our culture. In my humble opinion this 'recreational view' leave sex devoid of any meaning or purpose but pleasure itself. 'Recreational Sex' is not primarily interested in a deep and intimate experience with another, but in personal happiness and satisfaction, which, in my opinion, leads to a culture which makes the sex partner, an object for the self's pleasure and which leads to the commodification of sex. In everyday life this looks like unwanted pregnancy, disease, marital infidelity and divorce in my experience (not personal experience, by the way) So while I do not necessarily agree with every conclusion the Catholic Church draws as a result of calling procreation a mystery in which humanity co-creates with God, I do think it is the best alternative to 'recreational' ethic of popular culture.
On another point, and this is where I struggle, ideally the community should come together and help the single mom (or dad) to raise the child. Somone once said, "it takes a village..." but as Ian remarked above, the reality is that churches do not have their sh-- together enough to provide that community and some people are left in a no-win choice...You can take the idealist approach and say that all abortions are wrong in every case, but how does that minister to the mother in the impossible situtation? The danger with such an idealism is that it leads to a critical legalism of categorical oughts and shoulds.
Theological Snob raises an important critique of the idea that the church should be the alternative family for single mothers who feel ill-prepared and unready to raise a child. First, the practical application of that idea, that the church becomes a global adoption agency, is unrealistic. I'm not sure I want to go that far and this is where I ready admit I 'punk out' on my own ideas. I am not suggesting that the church becomes a social service agency. I am suggesting that the churches stance should be clear. We are a community for which abortion is not a viable option. In this way we stand as a prophetic voice to culture, offering a critique to the practice of abortion and showing an alternative way to deal with the 'no-win' situations that Theological Snob mentions. (in this area I am admitedly very influenced by Hauerwas).
As for Theological Snobs concern, that such a view becomes critical legalism, I think that is an excellent point. The alternative, however, leaves us no ground upon which to do pastoral care, which TS is concerned about. If the church does not have a clear and concise theological understanding of what marriage is, sex and procreation... if we do not clearly state that procreation is participation in the creativity of God, that children are such a high value that they should be created in the state of marriage and that abortion is a violation of who God is and how God acts in the world (which by the way the church is meant to be, the ebodiment of a Creative and Grace-full God) than what how do we determine our pastoral counsel? My fear is that if we refuse to have a clear statement about abortion, we have no ground for our pastoral care. If our pastoral care is not grounded on theology, than I fear we end up sliding towards the view expressed in the Nation, where the best way we can serve an un-wed mother ill-prepared and frightened, is to take up a collection for her abortion. Haven't we then ceased to be the church? In other words, how do we do pastoral care if we don't take a definite theological stand for life? If we do not offer a theological or spiritual view of the matter we are nothing but very poorly trained social workers.
While some may use a clear and concise theological statement regarding marriage, sex, procreation, and abortion in a legalistic manner, to throw away a uniquely biblical and theological view of a complex situation simply because some misuse it, is to throw the baby out with the bathwater (in a what is not an attempt at a clever pun). So while there is danger to 'idealism' I think the Liberal Christian church has discovered the danger of 'pragmatism' which is silence and apathy in regards to the issue of life, abortion and human sexuality.
My main concern (I think, because this is all just a theological thought experiment right now) is that the liberal church has failed to be a witness to its faith in regards to this issue. I am not trying to find a way to set social policy, but to return the church to its calling, which is to bear witness to the powerful presence of a living God. How can we do that if we remain so wishy-washy about a topic like Life?
Saturday, December 13, 2008
the problem with the argument that Katha Pollit offers is two-fold, the first of which is the subject for today. First of all she vastly over-simplifies the perspective of those who are 'anti-choice'. Notice how she describes the perspectives of those who disagree with her in negative terms. The perspective of those of us who feel that abortion is the ultimate violation of the image of God that the unborn infant is created in, do NOT think that this child is 'one of life's little challenges.' As a matter of fact Dignitas Personae takes the conception and birth of a child in the most serious of terms. Under the heading 'The two fundamental principles' we read' 'The origin of human life has its authentic context in marriage and in the family, where it is generated through an act which expresses the reciprocal love between a man and a woman. Procreation which is truly responsible vis-a-vis the child to be born must be the fruit of marriage.' The child is not a slight inconvenience, but a gift that is to be treated with the utmost respect, care and responsibility. Under 'Faith and married life' we read; 'God, who is love and life, has inscribed in man and woman the vocation to share in a special way in his mystery of personal communion and in his work as Creator and Father...' Nothing could be taken more serious than the birth of a child for it is a mysterious cooperation between humanity and God in the process of creation.
I think that protestants could learn a thing or two from this Catholic document. That a man and woman are cooperating with God's creativity through conception may not be very romantic, but it does lend theological clarity to the sexual act, a necessary corrective to the 'purely recreational' view of sexuality that is rampant in our culture. And it reminds us that there is something sacred in every child. Every child bears the mark of the Creator, whether its life is viable outside the womb or not.
If you read Pollit's article carefully you find the second problem with her thought process. There a young woman, pregnant, who stands the very real risk of physical abuse from family, should she return home as an unwed mother. Pollit is admittedly a 'pro-choice' thinker. Being 'pro-choice' means assuming that sexuality is the choice of the individual, as is procreation and giving birth. Pollit hopes that we will support this womans personal choice to have an abortion. But her argument for abortion shows the weakness of the whole idea that ther is anything personal about sex, conception and birth. It requires the concent of a community, whether that is the community of father and mother in the act of conception, or the concent of the family is helping to raise the child. A child is not the choice of the individual, but the responsibility of a community, parents, family and yes, God. The family does not consent to this child, and so Pollit offers us an illustration of the weakness of her perspective. having a child is NOT an idividual choice.
Pollit offers the support of a community in her article... a community that will pay for an abortion. This is where the church must be more active in my opinion. It is not enough for us to be simply against abortion, but to be for the family, even the mother and unborn child that has no supportive family. We have to offer our consent to life by offering support, safety, home, and help to this mother who is in such danger. I am particularly reminded of Mary. We do not know exactly how her own parents felt about her pregnancy. We do know that her husband, despite some doubts and fear, consented to the child in her womb... and then the Holy Spirit created a supportive community around her; her cousin Elizabeth, the shepherds, the Magi. I see in the gospels the creation of an alternative family for the Holy Family that would support them in birthing and raising an unexpected child.
Wednesday, December 03, 2008
This morning I am having a different reaction. In the lecture Boulton begin by referencing the second creation story of Genesis where humanity is created to serve, protect and enjoy the earth. He notes that no mention is made of worship of God in the purpose of humanities creation and existence. This part of the lecture I did not find helpful to his argument. He went on the story of Cain and Abel, and his reading of this story I found interesting. He notes that this is the first act of worship in the Bible and notes (something I have never notices) that this appears to have been completely the initiative of Cain and Abel... in other words, God did not ask for this or command it. Boulton asserts that this story serves as a warning about religion. The details of why Abel is 'regarded' or 'noticed' by God in this act of worship and Cain is not are non-existent. Genesis does not explain why. The point is that Cain reacts with anger and violence and we witness the first murder. Boulton reads this as a critique of self-centered religion and relatedly, worship. Cain was more interested in gaining God's favor than in truly making an offering of love to God. His religion and worship was self-centered, not God centered and this leads to violence. Boulton also notes that God speaks to Cain and reminds him in his anger (previous to the murder) that if he 'does well' he will be accepted. Boulton ties this 'doing well' to prophetic texts that voice God's rejection of Israel's worship because their lives outside of worship are not lived well; they do not live ethically. Boulton notes Amos 5:21-24, Micah 6:6-8, and Hosea 6:4-6 as prophetic expression of God's rejection of religion through the emptiness of worship. Worship is focused, as Cain was, upon gaining God's favor... but does not lead to acts of justice and kindness, and so offends God and does not please God. Boulton does not intend this to be a critique of Judaism or Israel, but a mytho-poetic story about all religion and all worship. All Worship and religion holds the dangerous potential to be more about the worshipper and his/her comfort, than about the God we worship and the righteousness and justice God expects.
I think that Boulton's work may be very important and I intend to buy and read this book. The very idea that God could 'be against' anything, is revolutionary in this day and age. Since so many think of God as a largely non-intrusive idea that can be largely ignored until times are tough and we want some comfort (think Cain) the idea that God is much more invested in the daily living of our lives an the trajectory of our values (toward or away from justice) is an important addition to discourse on God.
And I also think this offers interesting potential for a clear discussion of popular Christian worship in Christianity in America. While we are busily arguing, one way or another, for praise bands, praise choruses, fancy projection tech, etc. Boulton may indeed be offering us a theologically clear star upon which to fix our journey through troubling waters... justice. Is our worship focused on justice and does it inspire us to live just lives? This is what I hope Boulton gets to in the book... his lecture inspired me to think more clearly along these lines. If you are interested on some other thoughts I have had on worship and justice click the link to Tradition, Progression and Justice in Worship
Sunday, November 30, 2008
Just for some perspective Bread for the World has projected that $4Billion dollars would cut world hunger by 50%. something to consider as we light the advent candles.
Also in the same article is the mention of shootings and other violent tragedies as shoppers rushed about trying to get the best deals on Black Friday. A friend told me that while waiting outside for a store to open a woman in front of her in line felt that a man had tried to cut in front of her so she grabbed him by the throat and wouldn't let go until the police got there.
Here is the thing. Churchy folk, we like shake our heads and click our tongues at this thought. But very few of us would abstain from shopping on Black Friday altogether. And perhaps we should. It seems to be getting particularly dangerous. You could get choked or shot. And it is particularly dangerous for the rest of the world... we would rather spend 470 billion dollars on video games than 4 billion on world hunger.
Today marks the first day of preparation forthe birth of Jesus. This same Jesus would warn us that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. I wonder if Jesus would want us to celebrate his birthday this way? Maybe he would just tell us to quit and start over.
Thursday, November 27, 2008
This question has begun to haunt me recently as I've been doing some studying. I've been reading two book simultaneously; Christian Theology, An Introduction to Its Traditions and Tasks edited by Peter C. Hodgson and Robert H. King, and Essentials of Christian Theology Edited by William C Placher. I like to review the basics of theology occasionally. I learned some French in High School, but didn't keep up with it and so its gone. So I review the basics of theology now and again to stay 'sharp'. In 'Essentials' an essay is included by John B. Cobb Jr. entitled 'Does it make sense to talk about God' in which we addresses some of the doubt and skepticism regarding a belief in God in our age. Interestingly enough I have been encountering this same skepticism recently. Cobb addresses the skepticism of those who trust only in experience in order to believe. Since they have not experienced God in a direct way, the idea of God cannot be accepted or trusted. Cobb makes an astute but simple argument to this skepticism by showing the logical progression of this line of thinking. If we can only trust in that we have directly experienced, then history does not exist.
Since I did not meet George Washington, I should be skeptical of his existence. Since I did not witness the Holocaust with my own two eyes I should be skeptical of its reality, and so on. (Cobb doesn't say that specifically, that is my example, and I don't believe it... this is just an example. Just to explain, there are photographs from WWII but not of Jesus... yes, but photographs can be faked. When I explain my trust in the Biblical witness this is the nature of the argument... it could have been faked. A fanciful myth that I cannot trust. Could we not wonder this about a number of things? including our own birth-certificates?) Personal experience, he posits, cannot be the sole authority for belief since it would mean that history would no longer have any bearing on our present or future.
I think he makes an excellent argument. But I wonder if it would hold any influence 'on the ground' so to speak. I could offer that argument to those skeptics that I have met recently, but I wonder if they would find that argument compelling.
So my questions are...
is a sound theological or philosophical argument for the existence of God compelling? If not, what will be?
given Cobb's argument re: Experience, isn't the Bible a collection of personal experiences of the living God? So isn't the Bible itself built upon experience and the telling and re-telling of personal experiences?
Should there be room in church for skeptics... people who have doubts about the existence of God or the divinity of Christ? How do we make that room for those who are seeking or open, but still doubtful... or for those who are comfortable doubting frankly, but who want to be a part of a community of integrity, honest, compassion and generosity?
My next few posts will follow this line of consideration and I look forward to your input.
Thursday, November 13, 2008
Upon moving to Rhode Island and attending Andover Newton I found a home in Liberal theology and felt very comfortable there. Recently, due to study (reading Hauerwas) and conversations with pastor friends I have found the idea of being identified as 'liberal' wanting and so I have dabbled in the 'evangelical' blogosphere to see if there might be a place for me to feel comfortable.
But nope, I can't do it. Jonathan Merritt's most recent post sealed it for me. As intelligent at he is (much moreso than I) and as much as I admire his work for the environment, his latest post addressed the issue of women in ministry in the Southern Baptist Church. while he was being critical of the SBC, he stated that he remained undecided about women being in ministry. I can't do it, be associated with a group that is stuck on this issue. It's absurd.
so here I sit not liking the options; evangelical won't work, but neither will liberal. Post-liberal gets thrown around by some but it sounds too jargony to me. Even Baptist is problematic, as proud as I am to be Baptist. but it is problematic because so many assume that because I am Baptist I am against women in ministry, (just one example of the assumptions people will make).
So what am I exactly? What name will explain briefly to people where I stand in Christendom?
Does it really matter that much
Thursday, October 09, 2008
I face an existential dilemma: endure the “great frescoes of stupidity” painted by the political parties or vacate the voting booth. As this presidential campaign draws closer to Election Day, with sludge flying, I am seriously considering Nietzsche’s proposal “to keep out of politics and stand aside a little,” as he did.
When too many people are speaking, as in our bloviating 24-hour cable news and blogosphere, Nietzsche advises silence. He says that for the few conscientious objectors, “seriousness lies elsewhere; they have embraced a different concept of happiness; their goal cannot be embraced by any clumsy hand with just five fingers.”
G. Scott Becker concurs in an essay in Electing Not to Vote, saying there will be circumstances when “a sudden, widespread Christian abstention from the electoral process could serve to expose the hypocrisy that has seeped in it.”
Which is the great dilemma is it not? Paul spoke of it when he wrote that Christians should live in the world but not be of the world. But how is it exactly that we think about the world we live in? Is it good as Genesis tells us, or, is it fallen as is also told? As Christians are we to tend toward the ascetic, as Benson seems to suggest, monastics set apart from the electoral process which Benson accurately sees is fraught with problems? Or are we to engage fully in the process, knowing the danger that Paul suggests, that by being in, we become of... instead of influencing we become influenced?
Although I find myself sympathetic to Benson's dilemma about participating in the electoral process and agreeing with the reason's for this dilemma, I cannot agree with his answer to the dilemma, which is simply to abstain.
The issue is that whether or not I vote, I receive the benefit of the policies set by the President, Congress etc. As a pastor I depend upon the members of the church to tithe, so that I can provide for my wife and children. But in turn, these members depend upon their employers, who depend upon the demand of customers, all of which is tied, in greater complexity that I can fully understand, to the economic policies set by the President and the President's economic advisors. Whether I like the electoral process all the time or not, I depend on it, it affects me, and it affects Benson and Becker too. Although infrastructure such as paved roads, oil to heat my home, police to quiet my neighbors or search for my children when they are missing (God forbid), are largely provided by local and state government, still, federal government provides policies, guidelines, and finances indirectly that make these things possible. My education, which enables me to work is in large part due to federal loans. The taxes I pay fund many programs, some I like, such as relief and assistance programs and some I don't like, such as funding weapons for war. My point being that my tax money contributes to a greater good, and also in some cases to that which is not in keeping with my faith. But I cannot simply choose not to pay, not simply because the IRS would imprison me, but because there are people who depend on federal dollars, that I provide.
So in the end I find the idea that I can get a paycheck, call the police, get loans for an education, buy oil, and then either naively or condescendingly choose not to participate in the system that provides so much, well, frankly foolish. I then become a leech on society. Oh so elite because I can criticize the establishment, but still tied to it in so many ways and dependent upon it for many benefits that I would miss should I move to Central America or Africa for instance.
As to exposing the hypocrisy of the system, well, that is a bit optimistic. To think that if Christians stopped voting that suddenly Congress would collectively sit up and slap their foreheads in sudden epiphany is laughable. Nietzsche may describe eloquently the problem, but his solution simply sounds elitist and offers no solution. A bit like my two-year-old holding his breath so as to get his way.
Having said all that, what would the life of Jesus as recorded in the gospels say to us about Christian voting. Voting obviously wasn't even an option in his culture and society. Jesus did overturn the tables in the temple which N.T. Wright has suggested was an implicit suggestion that the system of connection between humanity and God that the Temple both symbolized and offered was broken beyond repair and replaced by his presence. Should this be our example when dealing with the electoral process? It is a broken system promising what it cannot deliver? We replace the electoral system by abstaining until it is 'overturned?'
On the other hand, would it be reasonable to present the preaching, teaching and miracle working of Jesus was both a criticism of the exercise of power by the elites and the creation of alternative communities which would embody power in service, sacrifice, generosity, honesty, and forgiveness? Could we then say that Jesus didn't simply abstain from the a culture and society that was broken, but stayed engaged so as to be critical with the intention of creating Kingdom. Is is possible to see Jesus' ministry not as asceticism, but the kind of 'in but not of' that Paul speaks of. Is that not the point of incarnation, that creation can only be returned to the goodness that God initially intended only when God engages with what is broken, instead of remaining separated?
Should we not then stay engaged in the process as Christians, in the world, incarnating our hope and faith in the Kingdom as we vote. But not of the world, placing our trust completely in this electoral system, voting to be critical of its weaknesses, but also grateful for its strengths?
Sunday, September 28, 2008
I am no economist. I'm not even terribly good at balancing my own check-book.
Listening to one economist explaining one facet of the current economic downturn, I noticed that as clear as he was in describing the problems, when pressed by the interviewer to pinpoint responsibility, he was very hesitant. He had just finished describing behaviors that have led to foreclosures, homelessness, etc. but he would not even describe the choices and decisions of those involved as 'wrong' or 'bad'. He actually said he didn't want to say that these were 'bad' people. Something suddenly seemed very wrong to me and that was the idea that our culture has lost its language for clearly describing (and therefore clearly teaching our children about ) right and wrong. He would say that many were caught up in a 'mass hysteria' but that seemed very unsatisfactory to me... it seems to remove responsibility from the equation.
Another show, 'This American Life' broadcast a simple explanation that I did understand (I think). The host also shared some listener feedback to the show. One of the listeners appreciated the fact that despite the severity of this issue and the fallout which adversely affected so many and will continue to affect so many, the lister appreciated the fact that 'no blame was assigned' in the show.
Sin has never been my favorite word, my favorite theological topic or my favorite sermon subject. Largely I suppose because I recall the use of the word sin in the church I grew up in. I was used so 'liberally' that it produced anxiety, guilt, and fear in many people. My first years as a pastor in church I experienced an interesting phenomena. I didn't use the word sin very much (still don't). Because I tend to focus my sermons and prayers on God's love, grace and forgiveness... those who had escaped church because of the fetish with sin language, could come back. Its not that I don't preach about sin by the way. Its just that I don't use the word.
Anyway, without a language to describe sin, or wrong, in our culture, how can we ever really recover from this economic crisis with any justice and any assurance that we will not repeat the same 'sins' over and over to the detriment most often to the poor. As much as I have found both energy and solace theologically in justice themes, I am more and more convinced that we cannot talk about justice without also talking about sin. If we cannot describe what has caused injustice and clearly give words to why it is injustice, how can we ever move through to redemption or healing or forgiveness?
Unfortunately sin has been used, in my experience, in abusive ways. It has been used to oppress peoples and cultures and as a tool of the ruling of one people over others, one culture over others. It has been used to establish and maintain the power of elites. This, of course isn't just my experience, it is a description from the gospels of the religious elites in and around Jerusalem. I, of course, understand that there are many legitimate arguments against viewing historical pharisees through the lense of the gospels, the description of the powerful elites using the word and concept of sin to establish and maintain control is convincing to me.
so, for now, I think that moderate to liberal churches like mine need to recover the use of the word sin, rehabilitating it from abuse, fear and guilt. but if we cannot talk about sin, we cannot talk about justice for the oppressed and redemption for the oppressor
Thursday, September 25, 2008
This will make you re-think: A Trivia question in Sunday School:How long is the beast allowed to have authority in Revelations?
Revelations Chapter 13 tells us it is 42 months, and you knowwhat that is. Almost a four-year term of a Presidency.All I can say is 'Lord, Have mercy on us!'According to The Book of Revelations the anti-Christ is: The anti-Christ will be a man, in his 40's, of MUSLIM descent, who will deceive thenations with persuasive language, and have a MASSIVE Christ-like appeal....theprophecy says that people will flock to him and he will promise false hopeand world peace,and when he is in power, will des troy everything..Do we recognize this description??I STRONGLY URGE each one of you to post this as many times as you can! Each opportunity that you have to send it to a friend or media outlet..do it!I refuse to take a chance on this unknown candidate who came out of nowhere.
Do be perfectly fair to my dad, he often sends me the most outrageous stuff he finds on the web that he can because he likes to get a rise out of me. It is an on-going joke between the two of us.
This e-mail causes me to wonder if the people who created it, or others that are similar, actually believe this, or, are they more like cyber-graffiti artists who like to start these forwards to see how far they go? I would assume the latter if two interesting things hadn't happened in conjunction with this e-mail. My wife receive the same e-mail from her uncle in Georgia. Then, today on NPR, during a discussion of politics and the web, a man who monitors peoples web-searches and from that data attempts to discover what these searches might suggest about peoples feelings and assumptions about politics and the economy, mentioned the mass popularity of this e-mail. This suggested to me that maybe this isn't simply a joke, or it may be a joke with more influence that I had hoped.
My response to my father was quite simple:
1. It is the book of Revelation, not Revelations. A small detail no doubt, but one that causes me to question the depth of thought that the author of this e-mail utilized in its creation.
2. Revelation Ch. 13 makes no reference to a man in his 40's or of a man of Muslim descent. If my history is correct Islam didn't come to exist until about 500 years after the composition of Revelation.
My father responded with a question, 'why should he trust my OPINION about the meaning of Rev 13 over someone else?'
Which provides the long story of the whole point of this post... the Truth.
Christians generally proclaim that the Bible is the inspired word of God and as such authoritative in guiding Christian life and faith. Now I am a Biblical Liberal. Which is a short-hand way of saying that although I do believe that the Bible is inspired by God and the authority for my life and faith, I also see humanity involved in the creation of the Bible, so that the Bible also contains human inspiration along with divine. So I would not read Genesis chapters 1 and 2 literally for instance.
But still, if we are talking about the authority of the Bible, are we then not also talking about Truth. The Bible is the inspired word of God, a revelation of God's Truth. In our discussion of the Bible then, we are discerning truth and from the Bible we are being lead to truth. It isn't a matter simply of opinion.
This isn't terribly easy for me to write because as a Biblical Liberal and a child of the post-modern era, Truth is a difficult word to write. I am well aware that there is a wide diversity of cultures in the world and religions also. I am well aware that there is wide diversity of morals and ethics which are influenced by these diverse cultures, and that even within just one culture there is a variety of opinions on any given subject. We cannot speak about Christianity in a certain sense, but Christianities, for my experience of faith is very different from my Roman Catholic Priest friend's experience and from my fundamentalist mother's experience as well. Certainly there is more in common than that which separates, but still, our practice of faith and our concept even of who God is, what salvation is, and what Heaven or the End will be are all very different.
So I have tended to stay away from 'Truth' statements because 'truth' is largely a matter of one's perspective. And truth has often been used for oppressive and imperialistic ends.
More recently however I have come to reconsider the importance of truth while watching Stanley Hauerwas deliver an essay on Bonhoeffer's political theology. Hauerwas observed that Bonhoeffer was disappointed by the Ecumenical Movement in Europe in the 30's and in his seminary education in the US, largely because there was no dialog or debate about the truth. His feeling, according to Hauerwas, was that this lack of Truth, eventually lead to the rise of Hitler in Germany and the church's collusion in his program of genocide. The church did not know how to speak the truth because they had not been trained in the truth.
This has caused me to re-think 'truth' especially the truth of the Bible, the Gospel and Christ. While as a child of the post-modern I am unable to claim possession of the full truth, am I not still obligated as a disciple to discern the truth as best I am able? Should I not hold myself to a higher standard of discerning the Truth as the Gospel proclaims it and to think carefully about how the gospel illuminates the truth?
As foolish as this e-mail about Obama and the book of Revelation is, I think it exemplifies the cynicism that our culture feels about Truth. So cynical that either we purposefully spread lies either as a joke or to bolster our rhetorical position or we refuse to push ourselves to discuss truth because we do not want to seem judgmental or imperialist. Both of those are legitimate concerns when using the word Truth, which means that our approach to truth must be done carefully and thoroughly and that our use of truth must be humble. But if I cannot say that Rev 13 says nothing about Obama and that such a view is not a matter of opinion but truth, how can I then proclaim other Christian truths, such as the evil of war or the sin of greed? If we have no voice willing to sound the truth, even in part if not in full, what kind of witness will the church have or be? “without a church willing to proclaim truth, what kind of nation will we become?
Saturday, September 13, 2008
this is a fairly random collection of thoughts, so watch out. Something that has always influenced the way I think about marriage came from C.S. Lewis. I remember (correctly I hope) reading Lewis reflecting on emotion and wedding vows. He suggested that while a relationship begins with a rush of emotion, love and passion, but these emotions, like any other, wane. And they need to. To live on a constant high of passion would not only be exhausting, but distracting. If we governed our lives totally on passion the basic necessities of life, like washing dishes, doing laundry and going to work, would not get done. Which is why, Lewis suggested, we have marriage vows. The give us a sense of stability for that time when our emotions and passions have subsided. While love is an emotion and therefore can blossom and fade as an emotion, Lewis suggests the love of a christian marriage is an action, the willingness to serve and sacrifice and remain faithful to another, always with compassion and respect, even when we don't feel emotinally like behaving that way, all of which provide the foundation for that passionate emotion to blossom again. (this is how I remember what Lewis said in Mere Christianity. Lewis scholars might differ with me and someone borrowed my copy so I can't really check.)
'My guts are full of shit!'
If you haven't had the pleasure of seeing the movie 'High Fidelity' with John Cusack, his sister Joan, and Jack Black in the funniest and strongest performance of his movie career, please go find it somewhere. It is brilliant and funny and poetic and poignant.
John Cusack's character has just experience another breakup with another girlfriend as the movie opens. He goes on a quest, finding all of the other girlfriends who have dumped him to find out why his is destined to be single. He finds out that largely it is his own fault, because while in one relationship he allows himself to wonder if a better one might be out there, and fantasizing about how much better it could be. His emotions were his guide in other words and he finally states his discovery of the mess his emotions have got him in by saying, 'I've been following my gut all these years and recently I have come to the conclusion that my guts are full of shit!'
Notice the commone theme. Emotions are not the best guide for our decisions and behaviors, especially in marriage. I'm not trying to describe some victorian novel marriage based on convenience and economic and social standing, but I think I have come to the conclusion that emotions do not always lead us toward happiness.
In my first year of marriage (well, my second marriage, her first) I have learned how to manage my emotions in the safe container which is my wedding vows. I have been happy and angry, exstatic and sad, passionate and exhausted, calm and stressed, whimsical and cranky and I have learned that largely that all of these emotions come from within me and not from my lovely wife. I say that because I have worked with some men in my ministry who were unhappy and who decided that their unhappiness was largely because of their wife and their marriage. But once they left and divorced, they were no happier!!! I have worked with married men and women married who met someone else who made them 'happier.' Happier until that relationship became less of a hobby and more of a career if you catch my meaning. When it ceased to be a fun distraction and became the prime focus, it wasn't any happier anymore.
so I have learned that emotions don't guide me well. My wedding vows protect me from my emotional highs and lows. We work out our emotions together, manage them as a team and speak honestly about them, because we know they are not the only thing holding us together, our wedding vows are too.
Wednesday, September 10, 2008
Marx once suggested that religion was the opiate of the masses, (or something close to that phrase). A recent conversation with a person in their twenties quoted this to me and it made me think about worship. Could twenty-somethings be offering some guidance to our worship and discipleship conundrum by quoting this phrase. Because this person quoted also believes in God and does not consider Atheism or Agnosticism an adequate descriptor of their particular relationship to God. It isn't God that is the opiate, but church. But notice what this person is implying they want. They don't want to be distracted or coddled or entertained by church/worship, they want to be challenged. At least, that is how I interpret this.
Could it be that there are some twenty-year-olds out there who would be just as dissatisfied with praise bands and hymns as they are with a tradition they don't understand because both are opiates, because neither option is challenging the participant to live just, robust and meaningful lives, but simply molifying them through life and making them feel a little better about death?
What surprised me about this conversation was that the twenty-something person enjoyed the traditional aspects of service, passing the peace, reciting the lords prayer etc, because they were done with passion and integrity. During the passing of the peace, people really did renew relationships and affirm their devotion to and love for one another. They meant it, in other words. And the Lord's prayer, which calls for faith, justice and a commitment to the poor and needy is recited so as to strengthen the body for a life of discipleship, which is discussed in the sermon. The sermons are challenging, this person said. Did you hear it? they liked a challenge and they appreciated a liturgy that put the challenge into practice and strengthened the body to go out and live that challenge.
Perhaps what young folks, (some anyway) want more than entertainment is to be challenged to do and be more. Perhaps they want a weekly practice that reminds them of the more they are created to be and do and a community that reminds them that they are God's children created to live lives of peace and justice and supports them in those endeavors.
I was amazed at the depth of insight shared with me by this twenty-something.
And I was given hope. Hope that we don't need to entertain younger generations to attract them to church. Hope that the church doesn't need to mirror a fairly shallow and disposable culture in order to reach people for Christ.
Tuesday, September 09, 2008
I think we need to constantly ask ourselves about the purpose of worship. To a degree it is an "insider" event for those who profess a faith and claim to be a part of the story. Yet at the same time an element of worship needs to reach out to other, to be "seeker" oriented. Currently we seem to be stuck in an either/or dialetic. Where is the both/and?
I think that both ends of the dialectic are faulty because both focus on what we are recieving from worship. The church, protestant/non-denominational, has made humanity the center of worship and when we make ourselves the focus, we have to basis upon which to assess the appropriateness or faithfulness of our liturgy, whether traditional or progressive. In the Bible, worship is something that humanity offers to God. Praise and thanksgiving, submission and petition all directed toward God, is the biblical witness and yet most of our consideration about worship is more concerned with what will interest and entertain, either the old faithful or the young and unchurched.
While it may sound like I am a guardian of tradition, I think that ref-ocusing on God in worship would challenge the 'praise' movement in ways that would make it more effective. The bible offers many examples of exhuberance and joy in worship; Moses and Miriam singing after the crossing of the Red Sea, David dancing with all of his might before the Ark. Offering God thanks for the power and strength to act faithfully and justly in the world would give praise hymns a depth and substance that is sadly lacking. It would change our focus from entertainment models in worship, to thinking artistically and creatively. Instead of putting up movie screens we would be using our creative talents to express thanks for the presence of God in our lives and in the world.
As it is, both traditional and progressive worship are weakened because we are the focus more than God. Traditionalists that don't want to change anything because they are just comfortable with the same old hymns, the same old prayers and the same old liturgical actions are more focused on themselves than on a creative expression that ushers the community into the presence of the living God.
As an example, the music minister at the church I serve told me a progressive and non-traditional liturgical act at a church he served in the mid-west. Someone actually wove a prayer shawl that 6-8 ushers would carry and surround the entire congregation in at the prayers of the people. I prayer shawl not for one person, but for the whole blessed community, surrounding everyone in prayer. I think that must have been a beautiful act. It isn't traditional, but neither is it based solely on entertainment. It is a creative and artistic offering of ones talent to God, intended to lift the whole community into an experience of God's presence in prayer.
I think that we will attract many people, young and old, when we free ourselves to creatively lead people into the presence of God. By focusing on God, instead of doggedly holding tradition or blindly accepting entertainment as our model, we become relevant and remain substantive at the same time.
Friday, September 05, 2008
'But what bothers me the most is a sense of irrelevance and disconnectedness from the world that I feel in most churches. Maybe that is just the nature of the narrow way, but somehow I think our fellowship should be future pointed rather than past pointed. It feels to me that most churches are trying to preserve a worldview of science, culture, philosophy, and an attitude towards God that doesn't work anymore.'
Thanks for that thought,
Here is what you have encouraged me to think about.
Relevance may be the key concept for us here. Is the church meant to be 'relevant'?
That may seem like a strange question because the obvious answer is 'of course'
that is what most churches report they want from their preachers and sermons, relevance.
We want to understand the revelation of God as it applies to our lives today, in our context, so that we can live faithfully and be an effective witness. That reasoning I understand and suppport.
So if relevant means understanding the word of God so that we can apply it to our societal and cultural context and be an effective witness, than I say relevance is an important goal for our worship.
But Paul said in Rom 12:2
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.
I think this may move us toward a good working definition of 'relevance'
Our worship must be relevant in such a way as to guide us in to transformation from life as the world (culture and society) define it, into life as God defines it.
In other words, the goal of following Christ is to be Christ-like. The goal of worship is not to simply mirror popular culture so that it becomes more accessible, but to lead us into rejecting what is considered popular and might just be the opposite of what Christ expects from his disciples
That is my contention with much of what is happening in worship. that it conforms to the ways of the world. Large screens like a movie theatre. Bands like at a bar or a concert. No more robes on the pastor, just jeans and a hawaiian shirt. Play down the religious symbols. Take out the traditional parts of liturgy, like the Lord's Prayer and the Gloria Patri.
Traditional worship makes people uncomfortable and is foreign to them. And we want them to come to church.
Many do not understand these elements of worship and so they are 'irrelevant'
But in the scripture above, Paul is not calling us into a comfortable relationship with Christ. We are not to conform (which is comfortable) but instead to be transformed (which is to be different, and that is decidedly uncomfortable . we are meant to be different from the world and worship is meant is meant to be different from the world around us, critiquing that in the culture around us that goes against the Kingdom Christ brought in his life, death and resurrection. Worship meant to make us uncomfortable in the world, so that we will live differently. We must be uncomfortable in order to see the world a different way, to catch a glimpse of the kingdom so that we can know the dangers of conforming.
Church that gives away SO much to be popular and comfortable soon, in my opinion, looses its power to witness to the larger world.
Praise hymns themselves. Not only do they not really teach us anything about the faith. they are completely individually oriented, internally focused... its just about 'me' and Jesus. And finally, these praise hymns are not created with any lasting power. They are like cell phones and computers, created to be purchased today, tomorrow obsolete because another new song has come out, so that we will purchase another one. It is that impermanence, that disposable ethic that worries me most, even though it is relevant. The ethic of disposability is what has created such dangers for the natural world around us. Ton's and Ton's of trash build up for the sake of convenience and disposability. When things are disposable, soon people are disposable (read the first chapter of Esther to see disposable good and disposable people). Even marriages are disposable and babies too.
the church needs to be a witness for the value of people, marriages, babies. We must stand against this disposable ethic instead of conforming to it, yes, even in our music we make that witness.
Hauerwas maintains that the point of the church is not to be successful or popular, but faithful. What are we being faithful to if we we are jetisoning all those things that make us unique and teach us how to be non-conformists?
This isn't to say I'm against relevance or innovation either.
I like to play my guitar in worship, which really isn't a part of my tradition
(it actually is a part of some traditions, including the african american tradition as I understand it. Guitars being the only affordable and accessible instruments for many African American churches in the days soon after slavery when they were still not allowed in the wealthy white churches)
and I like to find hymns that are written with contemporary language and themes.
I grow tired of the 'blood' hymns as they espouse an understanding of atonement that I cannot affirm. I grow tired of hymns that have antiquated language 'Here I raise my ebenezer' What does THAT mean?
this is where Justice comes into play.
Look to Is 58.
that is all about worship.
israel is asking God why they are faithful in worship, in prayer and sabbath, and yet God does not seem present and available to them.
God launches into a critique of their worship. it isn't relevant. by relevant god means that worship does not shape the lives of the worshippers outside of the temple. They use each other cruelly. they amass wealth for themselves and ignore the poor. The share fine meals and let others go hungry. Relevant worship according to God, changes us from self-centered individuals to community oriented people. Worship makes them feel good for a while and then they can go out and act however they want. This sounds too much like praise music to me. I have just had a moving and cathartic experience of singing 'Here I am to worship, Here I am to bow down, Here I am to say that you're my God...' but then, have I volunteered at a soup kitchen, simplified my life by donating the clothes that I speant hundreds of dollars on and then didn't wear. Have I sold my SUV and bought a hybrid, have I done anything differently in the world?
Relevant worship, according to God opens our eyes to the emptiness of material wealth, and to the plight of those who cannot even attain the most basic of needs. Worship was meant to highlight the sins of society and strengthen those gathered to live just lives. when they did live just lives, their worship was relevant.
This is the way i propose to navigate the 'worship wars' between tradition and contemporary. And it aint easy. There are few traditional hymns that pick up peace and justice themes. There are few praise songs that do so either. I am constantly searching for hymns with justice themes written to traditional hymn melodies and to contemporary hymns that are written with a certain 'pop music sensibility' that still proclaim the faith.
thanks vance for your response and I hope you will continue to challenge me to think further
Tuesday, September 02, 2008
Home eating lunch today I watched the daily show with Jon Stewart. The show included a really funny and interesting piece which highlighted what some called the 'spectacle' of the convention. Stewart had a correspondent running around the convention dancing and chanting and clapping with people. At one point he is dancing with a woman and asking her questions about Obama's policies. at one point he questions the substance of her answers which was particularly funny as they were 'getting down' while discussing political policy.
I didn't watch much of the DNC and the spectacle was my problem. I must be turning into a crumudgeon, because I kept thinking to myself, 'is this the method and the context in which politics should be done in the US? It looks like a Jimmy Buffet show or a Tail-gate party at a football game. Is this really the only way to involve the American Public in such important decisions and processes, by providing loud music and fire-works? I must be growing old or something because I keep thinking to myself that occassionally there are times and places for serious discussion of serious matters, but aparently the DNC wasn't it.
and I wonder too about worship. I just wrote to my church about the changes I see in worship around me. Praise music and Praise bands. congregations choosing to elliminate the Lord's Prayer, the Gloria Patri and the Doxology from worship. Large screens installed for Power-point sermons, religious symbols put int he basement, hymnals in the attic. some even changing their names so that you would never actually know they are a church. All so that worship can be a spectacle, so that it is more entertaining to Gen Xers I guess.
The concern that these churches are hoping to address is the steep decline in attendance to worship. Perhaps if worship were more entertaining, less formal, and more like other experiences, like movies and pop concerts, more people would come.
but that leaves two questions unanswered:
1. Once they come, what are they learning? Praise music is notoriously influenced by pop-music, including its disposability. Praise music is written to be easily learned and sung, quickly sold and therefore quickly replaced. Most praise songs have little theological substance. So, we get young folks into church and they enjoy singing, 'Come, now is the time for worship' but what have they learned about who God is, what Christ did, what the church believes or what discipleship means and looks like. 'Lo He Comes on Clouds Descending' may not lend itself well to the electric guitar, but at least you have learned something about Christ, Salvation, Crucifixion and Resurrection after you have sung it. so they like to hang with us when we sing praise, but are we passing on a faith with any depth or substance to them? and if we aren't passing anything of substance on to them, why are we so concerned about their presence? Are we more interested in success than in being faithful to Christ and the Kingdom?
2. should church and worship look and sound like the world around us? Are we not meant to provide the world with an alternative, THE alternative which is the gospel? Worship, at least in my understanding of it, is meant to be an experience, perhaps ever so fleeting, of the presence of Christ and the reality of the Kingdom. that will NOT look like the world around us. Our values will not be the worlds values. So if we accomodate so much to remain 'entertaining' we run the risk of accepting the values of the world that we are meant to subvert not support.
These are serious times we live in. And we need a serious devotion to the gospel in order to remain the faithful witness that Christ has called us to be. Spectacle in worship, it seems to me, teaches is the wrong thing about worhsip and faith.
First it teaches us that worship is meant to make us 'feel' something. while worship, in the Bible, is first and foremost meant to be an offering of the individual and the community to God, not the recieving of happiness or entertainment. Worship, in short, isn't about me, its about God. Entertaining worship is about me.
Second it teaches us that a relationship to God is about me. I am meant to recieve happiness, peace, prosperity from this relationship. There is little to no 'service' in praise music or entertaining worship. this worship does not push us to 'take up our cross' or explain to us how we do that. Instead we repeat a few simple phrases 'Yes Lord, Yes Lord, Yes, Yes Lord' and slip into a pop-candy induced stupor.
It isn't that I don't think there should be some changes in worship or an attempt to be relevant.
perhaps my next post will talk more about that should my millions of adoring fans clamor for more.
Tuesday, August 26, 2008
A nine year old boy who is not allowed to pitch because he is too 'good'
I took my oldest son to his first soccer game.
first, and I admit, this particular post is a bit of a 'bitch' on my part.
He had one short fall season of instructional soccer last fall and this year he just plays games.
Mind you, he has a high-school kid as a coach who doesn't explain anything about the game at all to any of the kids. The referee for the game is also a high-school kid who doesn't bother to explain the calls he makes. so most of the kids are clueless as to what is going on.
But here is my main concern.
The opposing team had a 'competitive' soccer player. there is 'competitive' and 'recreational'
My ex-wife signed our boy up for 'recreational' which I always thought meant fun and instructional. this was neither. It wasn't instructional and it wasn't fun. My boy handled the 12-2 drubbing we got thanks to the competitive kid, without much care. He just likes to get out there and run around. some of his team-mates were in tears because they just couldn't hang.
Back to the pitcher story. As a boy I was awful at sports. No one explained any of them to me and so I would should up at little league, ready to learn, with no one interested in teaching. they just wanted to play and win. there was no way for me to learn in that system. I'm sorry, but I'm having a hard time feeling bad for the pitcher who was told he couldn't pitch, because I'm the kid who already isn't that good at hitting to begin with, who isn't going to learn a thing by striking out in three pitches.
I'm not saying, don't let him play, find a league where he can be competitive and where the batters can compete with him. If he continues to strike out kids who can't keep up, what will they learn and what will he learn.
What is my son learning about sports from his experience at soccer? How to be a punching bag?
Here is my failing. I got so upset about the game I was trying to coach him for the whole game, which increased his stress levels trying to make me happy. I completely forgot the only reason I wanted him to play sports anyway; to get some exercise, meet other kids, and HAVE FUN.
I am disapointed by the apparent lack of concern on the part of the soccer powers that be, that including competitive kids in recreational leagues ruins the fun for everyone.
What I have to remember is my sport ethic. Play because its fun, you meet some people you like and you feel good about accomplishing something. I'm not going to push my son any more to keep up with little mister Beckham on the other team.
Learn something new, have a good time, introduce yourself to a team-mate
then soccer is worth something.
Oh, and yes, I want my son to learn to be concerned with the other players and the opposing players. I don't want 'winning' to be his only goal. I want him to value sports achievement for everyone, not just himself and his team.
Now I just have to remember that myself.
Thursday, August 21, 2008
Amazing and Uncomfortable Faith
'Woman great is your faith'
What does the word 'faith' mean?
Does 'having faith' mean that we proscribe to a set of beliefs? Accept certain ideas about God?
We affirm that God exists in trinity even though that is a hard concept to understand and explain.
Does 'having faith' mean that we belong to the Church or a church? We are a part of 'the faith because we regularly attend worship at a Christian church, and take part in the practices of that church, Baptism, communion or in some churches the larger list of sacraments?
Does 'having faith' mean that we believe in something? I mean just a generic sense of belief that things will be ok?
Last week Jesus seemed to chastise Peter's 'little faith' although I really thing he was chastising with a smile. This week, Jesus points out the 'Great faith' of the Canaanite women (and by the way, this is the only instance in all of the gospels of Jesus calling anyone's faith 'Great', so we are witnessing something very special, very unique.)
I think 'faith' has become a bit of a cheap word to be honest with you.
Just about everybody would say they have faith. A vast percentage of American's say they believe in or have faith in God. But by that they often just mean that they like to believe that someone out there is a nice warm soft cuddly old man with a beard who smiles a lot and gives us a couple bucks when we mow the lawn. We really don't have to pay too much attention to God and God generally just sits back and lets us do as we wish in life, occasionally giving us a pat on the back.
'You've got to have faith' I've heard one person say to another, before they get on an airplane. Have faith in what, the plane? The pilot? So faith is trusting in the laws of physics or in technology.
'You've got to have faith' I've heard one person say to another, who is going through a tough time, financially, or in their relationship or with their health. Its kind of a way of say , 'Oh, it will be all right.' When we really don't know if it will be all right.
Much like the dollar, the value of the word 'faith' has been sinking.
The Canaanite woman has 'Great' faith.
What makes it so great?
Well, she is a woman, publically approaching a man. Women just didn't do that in this time and place and culture. Faith has urged her flaunt what is considered respectable, proper, and polite in public to make a shocking scene.
She is a Canaanite woman. Canaanites were the enemies of Israel. When Moses and then Joshua, lead Israel into Canaan, God commanded Joshua to actually destroy Canaanites (in a particularly unsavoury Bible story) They were dangerous to the children of God and so Israel was to avoid them and even in some cases destroy them. This woman is braving thousands of years of history, ethnic tension, and even, genocide. She is crossing the boundaries of race and religion and extending a hand to the enemy in order to help her daughter.
If you are keeping score with me, notice how different this 'faith' is from the popular concept of faith. While the popular idea of faith does not risk anything and does not cost anything and is just a general 'everything will be ok,' in this story, the Canaanite woman is risking public shame and courageously breaking through age old walls of distrust, difference and violence. Faith doesn't erase questions and risks, at least in this case, faith drives the Canaanite woman into the teeth of danger and doubts.
Now, an interesting and unpleasant thing happened to me on the way to this sermon. Sitting in my office making initial notes and thoughts and struggling with what I could possibly do with this story, I got a phone call. It wasn't so much that it was a phone call any different from the rest. A woman calls, doesn't have rent, just moved to RI with her husband to find work, but he got terribly ill and she lost her job caring for him and now they are about to loose their apartment (they have two kids too by the way) and she needs help. Well, she only needed $200.00 and I figured we could swing that through the deacons fund. Then I asked her address. It wasn't a Burrillville address, or Harrisville or Pascoag... She lived in another part of the state.
Well, I'm sorry I say, we have to limit our assistance to people in our community. We try to be generous, but we do have limited funds and we can only serve people in our community. Why don't you call; and I listed some Baptist Churches in her area.
What was troubling me about this story suddenly became very real.
You see we have this idea in our heads about Jesus; he is not troubled by women who make public displays, he has stopped to listen to and heal many. He is not troubled by foreigners, he has healed them or their children or their servants too. We have this idea in our heads about Jesus who looks at the crowd with compassion, his guts torn out by their pain, which he alieves as only he can. And that is what we expect...
But in this story, he completely ignores the Canaanite woman. Perhaps he even rolls his eyes and tries to pretend his attention is elsewhere.
He does turn to her and speak to her, but he says, I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.
I'd like to help you see, but I can't because I'm only here for Burrillville residents. Did you hear it?
She persists again, getting on her knees.
It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs.
Did you hear that. Jesus just called her a dog. This is not the Jesus we are accustomed to.
And I didn't know what to do with this story.
The next day I sit, still struggling with what on earth to say about this Jesus who would ignore and then belittle someone who needed help when the phone rang again.
It was the woman.
Help me, she said.
I rolled my eyes, I don't have time, I've got to get this sermon done and do some visits.
Help me, she said.
I can't you are from burrilville. You aren't one of my children, Ask someone else.
I did. They don't return my calls, they only help church members.
they accuse me of being a drug addict or a scam artist.
Did you hear it?
How do I say No?
How do I say Yes?
In the end I never did figure out why it is that Jesus ignores the woman, says he doesn't have time or resources for her, and then, calls her names... I still don't know why that is in here.
I do know that
I don't have time for this
I don't have the resources, the money, the energy for this
I don't have to help you because I don't think you deserve it...
I do know now that whether or not we like to hear Jesus say these things, and I don't think we do,
we often (I often) utter these excuses.
For those of you keeping score; we have a snapshot of what faith isn't. I don't know why we get that snapshot of what faith isn't by looking at Jesus. It almost sounds blasphemous to say, but there it is.
What is that saying, Life is what happens when you are trying to do something else.
Perhaps that is true of faith. For me, a chance to practice faith and faithfulness came while I was trying to do what is central to a pastors faith in God and to his congregation, write a sermon.
Being in a hurry or focused on other things, is an obstacle to faith.
Viewing challenges and situations with doubts as to our resources, is a faith block.
Judging the worthiness of others walls in our faith.
When we don't pay attention, don't have enough time or resource, don't think others are worth it...
we aren't walking into the teeth of doubts and fears and risks , where faith is meant to be.
I went into our gospel lesson assuming that the most uncomfortable part of it was Jesus reaction to the canaanite woman. I came out of this story particularly uncomfortable with what I had learned about faith. While the world and many popular preachers present faith as a peaceful presence and a blessed assurance that all will be well, demanding little from me but a positive and hopeful attitude... this story instead tells me, this Canaanite woman tells me, that faith is that which afflicts me to move from comfort and apathy or passivity, into the jaws of peoples needs, God's call and the tension that comes when we realize that the answers are not always easy, that God has called us to move, to act, to change. Faith doesn't mean that it will all be quickly well, it may get worse before it gets better, it may not get any easier for me... but it will be the will of God and it will bring glory to the Kingdom.
Faith makes us queasy. The Canaanite woman must have felt that awful sick feeling in the pit of her stomach as she approached Jesus, was ignored by him, chastized by him. But the queasy feeling didn't stop her. Jesus must have felt queasy when he heard her voice; queasy because he was weary, queasy because there was so much left to do and he didn't need this interruption, queasy because the Canaanites had never wanted God before, but now, this canaanite, never praying to God before, now, that life was particularly tough, now she wanted God. Great Faith will make your queasy...
William Willimon tells a story that he saw on the television immediately after the attacks of 9-11. A mother and father were being interviewed as they had tragically lost their daughter. The interviewer closed by wishing that the mother and father could find solace in worship. To which the mother replied, 'we are christians. Jesus taught that we would forgive those who wrong us. I'm not ready to forgive yet, so I might need some space from Jesus for a while.' That is a great faith, that understands that following Christ's commands is not always an easy or comfortable prospect.
But I ended up amazed.
Amazed at this woman. Amazed at the utter determination that she exhibited. The conviction she had that God could and would transform the reality of her daughter possession to a new, healthy, happy and free reality. Amazed that she could see the impossible and demand the impossible.
I ended up amazed that this woman could accomplish so much when her faith didn't promise easy answers, quick solutions and refused to demand much of her. Instead her faith, her great faith, pushed her into a difficult and even painful situation, Her great faith shoved her to do that which the disciples found distasteful, inconvenient and even Jesus seemed to find annoying. Her great faith lifted her to new heights of love and sacrifice for her daughter and frankly shamed Jesus himself into action.
I stand amazed that this story tells us the faith does not shelter us from the storms of life.
faith, great faith will urge us into those storms, as Jesus did Peter in last weeks reading.
But that same great faith will show us, as it showed the Canaanite woman, just how strong, how resilient, how powerful and loving and tenacious we can be when we trust God in the worst of times...
Walter Wangerin Jr. tells a parable from his childhood. “When I was a boy, I told people that my father was stronger than anyone else in the world …. In those days a cherry tree grew in our back yard. This was my hiding place. Ten feet above the ground a stout limb made a horizontal fork, a cradle on which I could lie face down, reading, thinking, being alone. Nobody bothered me here. Even my parents didn’t know where I went to hide. Sometimes Daddy would come out and call, Wally? Wally? but he didn’t see me in the leaves. I felt very tricky,” Wangerin recalls.“Then came the thunderstorm … It was usual for me to dream in my tree and therefore not to notice changes in the weather. So if the sky grew dark or gave any warning, I didn’t see it.”But one day a wind tore through the Wangerin backyard and hit the tree with such force that it tore the book Walt was reading from his hands and threw him from his limb. “I locked my arms around the forking branches and hung on. My head hung down between them. I tried to wind my legs around the limb, but the whole tree was wallowing in the wind.”“Daddy!” As the wind blew he felt that his arms were going to slip from the branches.“Daddeeeee!”Then he saw his face at the back door, peering out. “Daddy saw me, and right away he came out into the wind and weather, and I felt so relieved because I just took it for granted that he would climb up the tree to get me. But that wasn’t his plan at all. He came to a spot right below me and lifted his arms and shouted, ‘Jump!’“‘What?’“‘Jump. I’ll catch you.’“‘I screamed, ‘No!’” But as the wind continued to blow, he changed his mind. He let go. “In a fast eternal moment I despaired and I plummeted. ‘This, I thought, is what it is like to die?’”“But my father’s arms caught me.“Oh, my daddy — he had strong arms indeed. Very strong arms. But it wasn’t until I actually experienced the strength that I also believed in it.”
That brothers and sisters is an amazing, uncomfortable and great faith
God Bless You All.
Wednesday, August 20, 2008
It was not a church funeral, no one from the church I serve as pastor. Just a pick-up that I do frankly for extra cash, as a service to families that have no church affiliation.
Without really getting too much into details, the fact that I was proclaiming the warm welcome of Gof for a faithful servant, for someone who apparently wasn't really bothered me. the family freely admitted that neither the deceased, nor they, her family had any association with any church or faith.
For the first time in my nine years of ministry, the theological point of the funeral liturgy that i use came home to me. the funeral service is a celebration of a life of faithful witness on the part of the deceased, a daily taking up of one's cross, as did christ, that allows the person to share in the blessed hope of christ's resurrection.
But (and I a do hate to feel judgmental) this family and particularly the deceased, made no effort to take up the cross. There was no faithful witness. I am not condemning the woman to eternal torment (that is not my job).
Here is the question you see. I am not claiming that God does not love or care for this person, BUT, she (according to family) had little to no relationship to Christ, so how can I stand and celebrate the reward of faithful witness to Christ, when there was none (that I am aware of anyway)?
I began to imagine the funerals I will someday perform (with sadness) for the blessed saints of my church who do daily take up their cross and who have over a life-time done so. I will say the same words for them and to their families. Aren't those words somehow cheapened by also proclaiming them for people who made no effort in faith and through grace, to be Christ-followers?
while Christ did preach the love and mercy of God, there were many, many instances of 'gnashing teeth' and eternal darkness for those who simply did not choose the Kingdom or make any effort to live as God expected.
In other words, am I not proclaiming a cheap grace in the these funerals. Am I not misrepresenting what God is all about if, through proclaiming eternal reward for those who never sought that reward. Live however you want and in the end god will still love you is not quite the story Jesus told. god loves you madly and wants to know you and be close to you and guide you. but if you will not be lead by God, how can I say that you still get the reward?
Is salvation universal I guess is the question.
I once read that an ancient church father once said, 'he who does not believe in universal salvation is an ox, but he who preaches it is an ass.'
I used to like the idea of universal salvation. I'm not so sure anymore.
It seemed a good idea so as to preserve the love and mercy of God, but it denies the choices of humanity, our freedom, I think. My mother loves me unconditionally, but if I ignore her, and miss out on that love, that does not make her cruel.
I feel like a gospel floozy (not exactly the word I wanted to use, but I didn't want to offend my millions of readers) selling a picture of a really tepid loving God who makes no demands of us 'His' creation and who therefore really creates little to no justice by simply loving us no matter what. Just pass me a check and I will make you feel better.
so should I stop doing funerals for the unchurched?
A very wise friend suggested that funeral for the unchurched is a good opportunity to reach out to the family. I appreciated those thoughts.
But that is not quite the point.
In the liturgy at the commendation I say... accept now we pray a sheep of your fold, a lamb of your flock, a son/daughter of your own redeeming. But what if they really aren't. They are created by God and so generally a child of God, but they have not chosen to be a part of the redeemed fold and flock. I can't say that with any integrity.
Do i create a different liturgy for such folk. one that doesn't promise the reward of the faithful, but does focus on God's love and mercy for all humanity? Is that still cheapening grace?
Just some thougths that I hope the one or two faithful will respond to so as to help me figure this all out.
Thursday, August 14, 2008
Matt 15: 21-28 is all about a Canaanite woman who approaches Jesus requesting his assistance for her demon-possessed daughter. But she is Canaanite and so Jesus doesn't even respond. She persists and Jesus final answers that he has come for Israel first. She gets on her knees and here is where the story gets tough. Jesus basically calls her a dog. Why should he feed the dog when the children are hungry. (Israel being the children of course). She flips it on him and says that as the dog she doesn't need a full meal, just a few crumbs. Jesus relents and exorcises the daughter from afar.
Now, this is no fun to think about. Jesus ignoring someone in need. Jesus calling names and succumbing to prejudice. A good friend of mine said whenever this comes up in the lectionary he promptly switches to the OT text.
so I'm sitting around trying to figure out what to do with it.
Guess who calls. The woman calls again. Every church is turning her down. Some don't return her calls, some are downright rude. She is desperate. Now, I ask you, how do I say again, 'Sorry, there is nothing I can do,' and then preach a sermon this sunday. How do I encourage the church to let their hearts be broken when I wouldn't let mine be touched by this?
I know what you are thinking. I don't know her. This could be a scam. She could be lying. She might just buy crack although the money is going right to her landlord, but maybe she and landlord split it. I don't have much money myself and my own kids to feed. Berean already gives without ever complaining, I can't ask for more. So many reasons to apologize and hang up the phone. apparently every other church did. Jesus certainly was tempted. But the Canaanite woman persisted and Jesus relented.
Following Christ is not easy. If we take seriously what Jesus said about giving generously to any who ask, forgive over and over again, turn the other cheek, well, it will not come naturally. It goes against our better judgment sometimes, it will not come easily, will not be convenient and will connect us with people that we might rather not know. Apparently even Jesus struggled to listen to his own sermons sometimes.
I still don't quite know what the sermon will be although I'll never forget the illustration that God apparently sent my way.
I feel a bit queasy writing out the check.
there is a good sermon title, follow Jesus and feel queasy.
It costs something, demands risks, makes us look and feel foolish
Then again, how queasy did Christ feel as Judas kissed his cheek?
Thursday, August 07, 2008
Tuesday, June 10, 2008
Monday, June 09, 2008
if you so desire.
toward the end you will see a posting by 'Walter' who suggests that those on opposing sides of the 'Gay' issue should just admit that we are not 'in communion,' a very Anglican type view. He even suggests that we are not practicing the same religion.
Baptists historically have not based their 'communion' with one another based on creedal affirmations as would Anglicans or Presbyterians. We associate with each other practically for education and mission. And historically we allow each other 'Soul Freedom.' This is interesting. I have no problem considering myself in 'communion' with Walter because I both expect and respect the exercise of Soul Freedom. God has given both Walter and I a brain to use in discerning and applying the scriptures. Diversity should not frighten a Baptist, we should expect it. I can still be in communion with someone who disagrees with me about one issue or another. Apparently for Walter we must agree to be in communion.
Paul addresses this idea in Romans 14. The Roman church(es) are in disagreement about dietary restrictions (staying kosher or eating meat sacrificed to idols) and about the correct day to worship (saturday sabbath or sunday sabbath). Paul expect diversity and instructs the church to allow each to do as s/he feels lead as long as they do so 'for the Lord.' Paul expects and respects a diversity of understandings of the scripture and instructs the church to be open to such a thing.
so I consider myself to be in communion with walter, even though we disagree. It seems to me that we as a world-wide church would be making a much more effective witness to the world if we would value communion over agreement, engage in spirited debate and then affirm each other as sister and brother in Christ.
'You may say that I'm a dreamer...'
The content is all my own based on reading Warren Carter and Richard Horsely.
The format of the sermon was inspired by a sermon delivered by The Rev. Terry Hamilton that I found at the following website. I like the simple and direct approach that she took in dealing with a difficult and controversial issue that I decided to use the format myself.
One of the Pharisees asked Jesus* to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. 37And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. 38She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. 39Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, ‘If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.’ 40Jesus spoke up and said to him, ‘Simon, I have something to say to you.’ ‘Teacher,’ he replied, ‘speak.’ 41‘A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii,* and the other fifty. 42When they could not pay, he cancelled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?’ 43Simon answered, ‘I suppose the one for whom he cancelled the greater debt.’ And Jesus* said to him, ‘You have judged rightly.’ 44Then turning towards the woman, he said to Simon, ‘Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. 45You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. 46You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.’ 48Then he said to her, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’ 49But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, ‘Who is this who even forgives sins?’ 50And he said to the woman, ‘Your faith has saved you; go in peace.’
Money is a taboo subject for churches. The reactions of the church to applying the gospel to economics and finance seems to fall into camps in my experience. One, a dogmatic approach which focuses on tithing, giving ten percent of one's income to the church. This falls short of what Jesus taught in two ways; giving in concentrated on meeting a requirement, which the Pharisees did, and Jesus criticized. One is not giving from the heart, but to meet a demand. Second, it focuses on institutional giving. Jesus wasn't talking about giving to an institution, but to the poor in general.
On the other hand, some churches tend to ignore the topic altogether. Discussing one's finances in public is not polite. There is the obligatory fall stewardship sermon, but otherwise the topic is generally not brought up. This ultimately fails too. Again, Jesus' teaching is focused on supporting an institution, not subversively created justice in an unjust system. And it allows us to divide our lives before God... Jesus can have my heart, by my wallet is mine.
I have three points I hope to make today about what Jesus taught about Kingdom Economics.
First: the Gospel Favors the poor; Jesus sought out the poor, particularly those enslaved to debt and his message was meant specifically for them as well as a criticism of the wealthy elites.
Second: The way we think of wealth in America today (in many churches) is not really connected to the Bible because we assume that wealth in the property of the individual without connection to a larger community.
Third: Jesus urged his disciples to think of wealth in terms of the community as opposed to the individual. Wealth was a tool for communal good instead of individual right or good.
1. The Gospel Favors the Poor
As we saw a few short weeks ago, Jesus began his ministry in Luke chapter four by proclaiming good news to the poor, the forgiveness of debts and the year of the Lord's favor. Strange we have missed the economics of Jesus message, for when we start to look and listen with open ears, we hear economics everywhere. Jesus began the sermon of the Mount or the Beatitudes with the proclamation of blessing to the poor. When Jesus taught the disciples to pray, he specifically mentioned debt; 'forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.'
Some of our favorite Jesus stories have economic themes; the Young Ruler who seeks eternal life in Luke... which leads Jesus to encourage him to 'sell all you own and give to the poor.' the Good Samaritan, in which an unlikely foreigner becomes the hero, pays money out of his own pocket to care for the injured Israelite he finds on the road-side. The story of Zacchaeus, who has grown wealthy by collecting taxes for the Romans and defrauding his neighbors. When he meets JEsus he offers to repay those he has defrauded four times what he took and then to liquidate half of his wealth to distribute to the poor. This, Jesus calls salvation. Jesus would describe the Kingdom of God in terms of a King who forgives debt in Matt 18.
Without a doubt in my mind, Jesus meant to be talking about wealth and finance. Debts was not a metaphor, but a real concern for Jesus and he purposely challenged the wealthy elites who grew rich on the labor and oppression of the peasantry. He purposely challenged his disciples to care for the poor and put their very salvation in economic terms.
2. We assume our wealth is our own.
This is a popular concept in our culture, perhaps a bedrock belief. We tend to admire those who build wealth, attian impressive houses, cars, clothes, and retire early to florida or arizona. They have worked hard for their money and deserve to reap the benefits.
Luke 12 tells a story of Jesus in which he tells a parable of a successful businessman. He is so successful that he cannot find enough room for all his harvest. So he goes on an expansive building project to protect his wealth and plan an early retirement. In our cultures terms, he is a success. He did what we see people do with their wealth all the time, expanded, invested, and used for his own benefit. 2000 years ago Jesus told a success story for today... except that JEsus does not let it stay a success story. He has God call this man a fool. He has only considered himself in this parable and the use of his wealth for his own benefit. His view of wealth, which I suggest is not so different from our own... God labels foolish.
Luke 16 contains the story of Lazarus and the rich man. The rich man eats wonderful food and dresses in the finest clothes. We are not told that he was cruel or injust. We are not told that he exploited anyone for his wealth (although it was rare in those days to grow rich without exploitation.) Lazarus sits outside of his gates and waits for the scraps from his table. Both men die. The rich man lands in torment and Lazarus at Abraham's side. The rich man's sin, as I see it anyway, was woeful ignorance of the suffering of the poor. He thought of his wealth as his own and the poverty and suffering of others as having no connection to him. This view of the world lands him in torment. I think these two stories show us that Jesus did not condone a personal and private view of wealth. Both characters in these stories are punished because they only thought of themselves and their wealth. Our money is not simply our own when we pledge ourselves through baptism to the Kingdom of God.
3. Wealth as Communal Salvation
So how did Jesus expect Jesus to think of wealth? Lets get back to our original story in Luke 7. Jesus is eating with a Pharisee, who would not be an elite, a part of the richest in society. But a pharisee would have been much wealthier than the peasantry, wealthy enough to throw a banquet for his friends. These banquets as I understand them were meant to both gain the Pharisee honor among his socio-economic peers, as he impressed them with the fruits of his wealth. This would also perhaps be a chance to gain the eye of someone in the elite class, who he could serve and gain more honor, prestige and wealth. The woman's presence is an offense because she cannot contribute to his honor or his wealth. this dinner is only for the wealthy and influential. His wealth is not meant to benefit her.
But notice that in Jesus story, the character with the highest honor and wealth, the King, is willing to sacrifice his own profit, his own wealth, in order to enable the poorer retainer to survive. Honor and status is gained through generous, even sacrificial sharing of wealth. this is the challenge to the pharisee, who sees his wealth as his own and his honor as tied to his disconnect from the poor. Jesus tells a story in which wealth is shared and honor ascribed to those who associate with and care for the poor.
The Zacchaeus story fits into this economic ethic as well. He gives half of his wealth and pays back four times what he has defrauded. He has put his own wealth and honor in jeopardy in order to benefit his neighbors and his community.
I think even Matthew 25 fits into this ethic. Salvation is given to those who have fed the hungry and clothed the naked. These actions presumably would stake a certain claim on ones own wealth. It would cost those who fed and clothed, and this ethic of sharing for the benefit of the community brings them into the kingdom and the very presence of Jesus.
God Bless You All